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What do far east side residents want at former Oaktree Apartments site?

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Paula Barrett never lived at Oaktree Apartments on the far east side but wasn’t a stranger to the area. She occasionally had to drive a young woman to her apartment there and saw the boards over windows and doors.

“That was starting to look really bad,” said Barrett, who’s lived in the area for about 17 years. “It was scary.”

Oaktree is no longer there. The 19-acre site sits empty now as the Department of Metropolitan Development (DMD) and local organizations gather feedback to see what the community wants.

The popular answers so far: a grocery store, library, affordable housing, restaurants and other businesses.

Barrett’s first answer for what the community needs is a grocery store — there’s a fish market and Hispanic food market nearby — but there could be more possibilities with that much space.

“I’m a library person,” Barrett said. “I would love that.”

The city took control of the property from an out-of-country company after a lengthy legal battle and demolished the apartments in April 2020. No one had lived at Oaktree since 2014, when the county health department condemned the property and the court ordered the remaining tenants to move out.

What was an eyesore now feels to some like an opportunity to do something big for a community people often look down on. The area around the site near 42nd Street and Post Road has poverty rates that reach as high as 59%, according to data from The Polis Center at IUPUI.

Leila Darden, president of the Far Eastside Community Council, has lived on the far east side for about 14 years. She mentioned the possibility of mixed-use buildings, which combine businesses and housing, and said other needs include a pharmacy and bank.

“We’re asking for basic resources,” she said.

Ideally, Darden said, development at the old Oaktree site would be the beginning of major improvements, paving the way for the next 15 to 20 years.

“It would definitely be a beacon of light and a beacon of hope for where we’re going,” she said.

The DMD hosted the first of three virtual public meetings for the project in May. The next meeting is July 8 and will focus on concepts. The final meeting is Sept. 9 and will focus on the final plan.

Damon Hewlin, a founding partner at Meticulous Design + Architecture, which is leading community engagement for the project, said one of the main things he’s learned from residents is the importance of feeling empowered through ownership.

One of the worries is market pressures could nullify the desires and needs of the community. Short of hefty tax incentives or grants, a grocer — or any other business — may not see enough return on investment to justify opening there.

Hewlin said ownership could also help negate possible gentrification and displacement that can come with new development.

Chalanta Shockley, who’s lived in the area for 10 years, would like to see businesses and senior housing but isn’t convinced business owners will want to invest.

“People want certain things, but it’s like we gotta have the business owners who want to come to that area,” she said. “That’s gonna be our big challenge right there.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

LET THE CITY KNOW WHAT YOU WANT

The Department of Metropolitan Development will have two more public meetings to see what the community wants at the former Oaktree Apartments site on the far east side.

• 6-7 p.m. July 8

• 6-7 p.m. Sept. 9

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